Marc Jacobs executive sues firm over 'oppressively gay' office

There is a pole at the fashion house that bears the name of New York's socialite designer Marc Jacobs, but it is of the dancing – rather than greasy – variety. And employees seeking advancement had better not mind looking at gay porn with the boss.

Or so says a scorching new lawsuit targeting president Robert Duffy.

Requiring an employee to perform a private pole dance is only one example of the "discriminatory environment" at Marc Jacobs International, part of the LVMH luxury group, cited in the suit, which was filed in a Manhattan court last week by the company's former chief operation officer, Patrice Lataillade. Mr Lataillade was fired last September after he formally complained about what he saw as an oppressively gay environment at the firm.

Mr Duffy, who has been a close friend and business partner of the super-successful Mr Jacobs since the mid-80s, might not be known for discretion or modesty. The reception at his Cape Cod wedding to his long-time boyfriend last year took an unexpected turn when two men stripped naked to the astonishment of guests. A week ago a disgruntled Marc Jacobs worker let loose on Twitter describing Mr Duffy as a "tyrant". But this assault in the courts – he, the company and LVMH are named as defendants – is a more serious challenge to his prestige. While the fashion world may be prone to bursts of diva behaviour, Paris-based LVMH has not always shown mercy. Recall its summary firing of John Galliano last month after his anti-Semitic rants in a Paris bar leaked into public view.

So far, however, LVMH is choosing to stand by the silver-haired Mr Duffy, even though the suit also includes the allegation that he uses company funds for his private entertainment. The luxury goods giant described the claims as "false" and rejected suggestions Mr Lataillade had been fired because of his complaints about management.

Mr Jacobs, 47, is not named in the suit. A fixture at the most glamorous Manhattan nightspots, like the closely velvet-roped top floor of The Standard hotel in the Meatpacking District, he suffered his own media embarrassments last year after months of gossip-column frothing about his boyfriend and their marital status. It all ended with Jacobs denying they were married and the boyfriend using Twitter to announce the split. Mr Duffy, meanwhile, emerges as a boss who has at the very least occasionally forgotten about appropriate corporate behaviour. It is a point spelled out in the court papers. "Duffy has behaved as if he has no obligation to follow [Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey] rules of conduct or the law," they say, adding: "He uses company funds for personal expenses and does not censor what he does."

The rest of his alleged violations of the codes of reasonable behaviour are also detailed. The suit complains of Duffy "displaying gay pornography in the office and requiring employees to look at it" and of indulging in the "production and dissemination of a book which included photos of MJI staff in sexual positions or nude". Finally there is the startling charge that he required "an MJI store employee to perform a pole dance for him".

The suit also attempts to suggest a pattern of Mr Duffy refusing to take the protestations of his employees seriously. On one occasion, he allegedly told a female employee "to get a thicker skin" and on another he suggested to a male worker that he "go home early and get a drink".

Mr Lataillade first began working for LVMH in 1996 and moved across to Marc Jacobs in 2002 and was promoted to the positions of chief operation and chief financial officer five years ago. He seemingly reached breaking point last September when he instructed his lawyers to voice a formal complaint in an email "summarising the legal situation and the hostile environment" at the firm. He was sacked one week later.

The suit is seeking unspecified monetary damages for "discrimination, retaliation and his mental anguish and humiliation" as well as lost wages and legal fees. But company officials are insisting that the complaints and the firing were not connected. "Patrice Lataillade was terminated as CFO and COO of [Marc Jacobs International] for serious matters unrelated to the allegations made in the complaint," a spokeswoman, Molly Morse, said.

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